Theatrical brilliance from Lebanon

A slight, 57-year-old man with a vertical shock of hair stands on a street corner in Beirut. He is Peter Sellars, the radical American theatre and opera director. His gaze and smile are simultaneously vivid and quizzical, radiating a Zen vibe that only just conceals his flashing, Catherine Wheel intellect. There’s a McDonalds 50 metres away, but he certainly isn’t here for a Happy Meal. He’s waiting for a remarkable young Lebanese actress and theatrical provocateur called Maya Zbib.

Zbib, who studied drama in London, is a founder of the Zoukak Theatre Company. She is fascinated by Marguerite Duras’s writing: Zoukak’s 2009 production, L or a Chronicle of Swooning, is based on Duras’s Serie du Danse. “It’s about a woman in the process of disappearing,” she says. But for Zbib, the opposite is true: she is appearing, rather than disappearing, in London at two events next week (31 August and 1 September) at the Central School of Speech and Drama. And next year, the Edinburgh Festival beckons.

Sellars had already taken Maya Zbib to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to join his collaboration with the dancer and choreographer Faustin Linyekula. He was in Beirut to help Zbib develop her acting and directorial skills, as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which has already involved teachers including David Hockney and Anish Kapoor, and young tyros such as the Irish theatre company leader, Selina Cartmell.

Sellars, famous for his controversial reinventions of works by composers including Brecht, Messiaen, Shakespeare and Stravinsky, will be a hot ticket during London’s 2012 Cultural Olympics, directing Desdemona, a sequel to Othello scripted by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. But in Beirut, it’s Zbib’s potential that grips him.

“To come here and find this energy and ebullience, and this high level of irrepressibility that accompanies Zoukak’s high seriousness is thrilling,” he says. “They are truly trying to find a new terrain and not repeat the same Lebanese stigmata. It’s time to pay attention to people we don’t know! We’ve all watched the cycles of destruction and rebuilding, and they have been shattering. Beirut has always been in the middle of some kind of open heart surgery – it’s like the shock and suddenness of research.”

It’s a balmy day in the city and we pile into a battered car, and set off to observe a drama therapy class for disabled children led by a member of Zoukak, Lamia Abi Azar, at a nursery in one of Beirut’s Palestinian ghettos. “Art and theatre is a demilitarised zone where people can put down their weapons and present new evidence in a cultural way,” says Sellars. “We can actually humanise it and get it out of these polarised political situations. It’s the human factor. Theatre was invented because democracy needed a maintenance department.”

The kind of radical and often starkly physical theatre pursued by Zbib and Zoukak – the word means alley – expresses new kinds of cultural evidence in a situation described brilliantly by the Lebanese artist and film-maker, Jalal Toufic: “Following surpassing disasters one continued to treat it as still available. One does not discern the extent of the disaster, this preparing for yet another future disaster . . . a good part of what unconsciously motivates the attack on tradition is the intuition that a surpassing disaster occurred before one’s birth or in one’s childhood, and that no attempt was made to resurrect tradition – thus leaving it a counterfeit of what it was.”

Beirut is a place of facades and overlapping truths, a city simultaneously visible and invisible, whose imagery and atmospheres are, by turns, charmingly humane, intractably tense, and fundamentally inscrutable to outsiders. Even at the exquisitely luxurious Albergo Hotel, the coffee table book that awaits you in your vast room is Beyrouthe, Ville Phantôme, with plates of Mona Trad Dabaji’s paintings of women and broken facades in the city.

Scores of towering new buildings, designed by architectural grandees including Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, are going up here, largely under the control of the Habibi family, and bolstered by the investment funds of wealthy Lebanese expats in Africa and Brazil. Monocle magazine has anointed the city with fashion-cred in short online films about local subjects such as the Esquire bookshop; Tyler Brulée’s interview with the doyenne of Christian Beirut, Lady Yvonne Cochrane, recalls Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Beirut, bolstered by funding from wealthy Lebanese expats in Africa and Brazil, has become a stage set, an urban strategy in search of world city status.

“Euripides didn’t confuse money with freedom,” Sellars remarks. “The content of life and democracy has been blended into a drink or a meal. We’re at a point that’s so shameless. But where democracy has been profoundly deceitful, Maya and Zoukak have taken the steep and difficult path. Of course, they are theatrically brilliant – but it’s about more than that.”

There are no facades inside the Ghassan Kanafani Habilitation Preschool, run by its director and fund-raiser Nahla Ghandour. Above her desk is a poster, which reads: “The definition of a person is to be found in the relationship between the definer and the defined, and is not determined by the abstract meanings attached to the group of which the person is a part.” It could be a theatrical manifesto, and dovetails with one of Zbib’s remarks: “At the moment, in Beirut, there are some young people trying things out and not being afraid of not fitting into categories – conceptual or physical, for example. So theatre can just be theatre.”

Inside the nursery, one experiences an achingly touching Ur theatre: for an hour, 18 children with severe mental and physical handicaps are painstakingly drawn into differing degrees of mimetic participation by Abiazir Lamia’s extraordinary expressions of gestural energy and tenderness. The children are strapped into their chairs; one or two tend to slide helplessly out of their restraints. A young mother in a turquoise headband is helping her child act out sleeping and waking, a kind of peep-bo: she holds up her daughter’s head with one hand, touching her mouth and gently rubbing her eyes with her other.

A little boy called Ahmed cries almost constantly, calling for “mama”. Another child says “baba” and Lamia makes a story out of that. Then she imitates a camera’s zshik-zshik shutter sound while pretending to take a picture of a boy called Kareem who grins perpetually; another boy, Hamad, is helped to work his way doggedly up the ramp to the room, clutching the handrail. Lamia starts another mime. “I’m telling them we are all going to sing the bird back up the branch again. But we won’t fly from the window. Usually, we open the window and the birds fly to the next exercise.”

Later, driving through the Shatila neighbourhood where the infamous massacre of hundreds of Palestinians took place in 1982, she tells me: “It’s so difficult for us not to be afraid, and to move towards what you’re afraid of. We hope, through the years, that we can make a difference to these children and their families. We want to be very professional and concrete and meticulous.”

Members of Zoukak have been involved in prison workshops with Iraqi refugees and Sudanese immigrants, leading to performances and story-building workshops in libraries in Lebanon, and pop-up theatre in underground car parks. The theatre troupe’s young performers are not drawn to heroic theatrical figures, but Zbib certainly admires the 1960s Hakawati “storyteller” movement, and its central figure, Roger Assaf: “They survived the war and did brilliant things with political stories.” She is considerably less interested in the productions of Beirut’s mainstream theatres, which include Al Medina, the Sunflower, the Iraqi-run Babel, and the French-supported Mono.

Zbib and the Zoukak company are based in a barely furnished apartment in central Beirut; it has the feel of a middle-class British squat in the 1970s, a decently scruffy nexus of books, posters, a room crammed with clothing and stage props, and a sizeable central working space, with other rooms off it. Sellars sits against the wall.

“Some of us have part-time jobs,” explains Zbib as a Powerpoint showreel of Zoukak’s theatre projects is set up. “I teach at the university and I get paid, like, two years later. Some socially implicated projects get funded. Because we are a collective, our economy is common – somewhere, somehow, we are able to save each other. We are in debt to each other. We want to live the theatre. There’s no historical theatre tradition in the region except a tradition of storytelling – Scheherazade, heroes and lovers, and lantern magicians from Syria and Palestine. We work towards being very political. In everything we do, we think: what does it mean to the audience, what sort of mirror are we making?”

In their Lorca street installations, in 2005 – the year that Lebanon’s prime minister was assassinated – phrases from Lorca’s poems were hung in the streets, as if they were political banners. “All the politicians threw their statements into the streets,” says Zbib, “so the idea was to use the same tool to escape from fear of enclosure. We were veiled and went down the street putting up the banners. Actually, it was seen as violent, even though it was the political banners that were talking of war.”

The showreel kicks in . . . a short 2007 dance piece called Telescope collaging dreams, facts and memories from childhood that examine the expression of suffering: “Research for us is a big deal,” says Zbib. “We think of art as a practice that needs group work, collected creation, and the development of bigger audiences.”

But it’s not always aimed at a production. It can be about creating dialogues with other artists, or “sharing skills and tools of creation.” In 2008, The Music Box played on the idea of objects of fear and desire, and was performed in people’s homes. Zuokak’s productions radiate iconoclastic narratives and physicality; some of the movement and mime, notably by Junaid Sariedeen, is rivetingly strange.

The perception of politics through theatre is framed by what Zbib describes as “this absurd [Lebanese] history with monstrous consequences.” Or, as Lamia Abi Azar puts it: “This psycho-social inheritance.” Sellars, sitting on the floor with his back against the wall, is watching intently. “Your remapping the spaces of history and emotion,” he suggests.

“The point of entry usually reveals your assumptions, that process of losing your preconceptions is essential... this intermediate space, the moment where one thing turns into its opposite, it’s the job description! To be Aristotelian about it, you’re standing in front of a reversal, and the reversal leads to recognition. You see again. Not cognition, but recognition.”

And in an aside, he murmurs: “I’m busy challenging them, and they’re busy challenging me. My job is to expose them to another set of possibilities. But I’m always moved by something you may have lost. You re-examine your own practice – your own periods of idealism are right before your eyes. In this room, everything is possible. That provisional quality of what they’re doing is absolutely about the landscape here.”

We watch a screening of Zoukak’s 2009 production of Heiner Muller’s short 1977 play, Hamletmachine, directed by Omar Abi Azar. “I’ve seen Hamletmachine 4,000 times, and in other situations it’s almost a cliché!” he exlaims in a thoroughly amazed voice. “I had to hear it here. And I heard the words for the first time! It wasn’t an abstraction. It wasn’t fuck you. It had meaning. It didn’t feel to me like a rusted car in East Germany. You’ve made something that wasn’t bitter, wasn’t ugly.”

Which is precisely Zbib’s game-plan. She wants to “create a discussion to make people think and say things that they want to say. Personally, I think a big part of it is vanity. But there’s this thing to have a space to say things. So it’s both. We don’t have a place to express ourselves freely in public. Theatre is the only place where people can experience this. We just go for it. That’s the power of theatre. It’s about moving people, finding a way to say things that are understandable, but without losing the art – to say political things without compromising the space for people to travel, imaginatively. And we put that whole process on stage.”

Zbib and Zoukak, says Sellars, are at a cusp. “They haven’t crystallised yet. It’s a marvellous moment for them. I’m obsessed with this point of entry – the vestibule, the transitional places. It’s super-charged, this transition. Now the world is watching this person who is not just at the mercy of local officials. The challenges here are serious. This isn’t part of the usual theatre mafia. Rolex are genuinely interested – you don’t have to push them, they really want to make this mentoring a global project. The star-making machine has collapsed. It’s been discredited as a procedure. Rolex are going to play a very dynamic role at just the time arts funding is being cut.”

Maya Zbib’s two-year collaboration with Peter Sellars has been of critical value. “The way Peter works with the issues that are important, and the way he uses theatre . . .” She pauses for a moment. “It’s far more political. With Peter, he gives me so many possibilities in my head. All the examples of his ways of working have been so valuable. His positivity is like drinking an energy shot. He’s so sincere, and he’s always giving you a gift, all the time.”

And now it’s Maya Zbib’s turn to pass her own gifts on, and London is about to get a flavour of the action. One thing is certain: her theatrical toolkit will almost certainly seem new and unexpected to those who haven’t encountered it before.

Maya Zbib leads a workshop for young actors and directors at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London, on 31 August; and she joins Geoff Colman, head of acting at Central, in an open panel discussion as part of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass programme on 1 September.

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